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Council looks at police, fire department budgets

Thursday, September 5, 2019 by Jo Clifton

At Council’s final budget work session on Wednesday, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told Council members he had learned that the city would have about $2.4 million more than anticipated when staff prepared the original budget of $4.2 billion. (That number is based on the tax rate of 44.31 cents per $100 valuation, the maximum tax rate the city can adopt without going to voters for permission to charge more.)

Van Eenoo, pointing out the obvious, noted that $2.4 million would not cover all the additional items Council members had said they were interested in funding. After Wednesday’s work session, he said staff would be working on amendments for Council to consider Sept. 10, when they are scheduled to approve next year’s budget.

One item likely to win unanimous approval is additional civilian staffing at the Austin Police Department. Council responded positively to Police Chief Brian Manley’s proposals to help officers and the public deal with the dangerous mental health issues that officers are frequently asked to resolve.

Manley proposes to hire six new community health paramedics at a cost of $1.263 million in Fiscal Year 2019-20, plus four emergency Mobile Crisis Outreach Team clinical workers who can be dispatched for mental health-related problems and 2.5 crisis team clinical and medical positions for expansion of telehealth programs at a combined cost of $602,000. In addition, Manley is asking for $50,000 for overtime to allow all call takers and dispatchers to take eight hours of mental health training.

The total cost for these new employees is projected to be $1.92 million in FY 2019-20 and $1.5 million in FY 2020-21.

Fire Chief Joel Baker’s proposed staffing changes for his department did not receive nearly as warm a reception. Baker’s proposal includes changing 27 firefighter positions into command technicians. Of those, 24 would be promoted to fire specialist and three to lieutenant.

He said the department needs to have command techs as an additional safety element both for firefighters and the community. Among other things, command techs can drive to a scene and assess the situation in the first few minutes of an incident, when things are most likely to go wrong. That frees up the chief to focus on deploying and tracking firefighter locations and other resources, he said.

Baker explained that although the cost of the program would be $864,000 for promotions and $1.3 million in additional overtime costs, he was not asking for any additional funds for new sworn firefighters.

Council Member Alison Alter was concerned about overtime costs, recalling that in 2014 when she came on Council the department was spending $20 million on overtime. One obvious reason for all that overtime was that the department was not hiring new firefighters because it was operating under a federal consent decree.

As far as adding the command techs to the mix when the city has already committed to having four firefighters on each truck, Alter said, “I’m not sure I have the information to be able to do that … It just seems like on every call … there’s more and more people that have to go out.”

Fire Department Chief of Staff Rob Vires told Alter that the department had “caught up” and that the overtime expenditure for the current year is about $10.5 million. That figure will be about $9 million for next year if Council approves the fire specialist positions, he said. If there are no staffing changes, Vires said he expects overtime costs to be $7.7 million in FY 2019-20.

One major difference between those proposals was that Council had already received extensive briefings about the need for more mental health training for dispatchers and additional community health paramedics to work with the police.

Department spokeswoman Michelle Tanzola said they heard one briefing about the fire department proposal several months ago but nothing recently.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, a former firefighter, both indicated that they would not support the chief’s plan for adding command techs at this time.

Garza was particularly concerned about when the department might be ready to open the new station at Del Valle/Moore’s Crossing. Area residents have to pay higher casualty insurance premiums because of the lengthy wait homeowners face when a fire breaks out. Baker told her that the new station should come online next May or June, more or less coinciding with a new graduating class of firefighters.

After the briefing, Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin Monitor, “It’s a new issue for me. I need to learn more. I appreciate and hear our new fire chief trying to define the kind of command structure that he feels most comfortable with and I think that generally someone in that position should be able to identify the command structure that would be best for them to do the job.”

Baker told Council the department had run a small pilot program for the command technician program.

City Manager Spencer Cronk told Council that he had asked Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano to look into efficiencies at the fire department and he wanted to keep the new command structure under consideration.

Photo by Lawrence G. Miller made available through a Creative Commons license.

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